Today is an epic day! No, it’s not my wedding day and it isn’t Christmas Day either…

It’s October 21st, 2015: the day that Marty McFly travels to in Back to the Future. It’s the future!

This morning Twitter has been abound with awesome pics, memes, videos and hashtags about the movie, but one that particularly caught my eye due to its relevance to the translation industry was an image with the Doc and the DeLorean, tweeted by audiovisual and literary translator Scheherezade Surià on her Twitter accompanied by a hilarious text in Spanish, stating: “Súbete, Marty. El cliente necesita la traducción para ayer.” (Translation: Hop in, Marty. The client needs the translation yesterday).

traduccion para ayer regroalfuturo

Image courtesy of Scheherezade Surià López


As translators, we often joke (or let out a nervous cackle) about tight deadlines and demands. When I started as a freelancer, receiving an email with a subject line stating “URGENT TRANSLATION” typically caused the following reaction:

fear> panic> itching> rash all over face> panic again> is the Earth spinning 100 mph?> dizziness> yep, the Earth is definitely spinning at 200 mph> sky darkening> apocalypse> keel over> die.




Well not quite…

But I would open that email with a shaky hand and certain trepidation. Thankfully I’ve gotten over that. 

So for argument’s sake let’s say that email contains a large translation for the next day; and I mean large, not unrealistic. I’m not referring to the ridiculous emails for 180,000 words for 8am the next day – there are some cases that are just impossible to handle in a short amount of time. 

So, after the sweating has stopped there are a couple of things we can do. We could reply saying: Impossible to do that for tomorrow. End of. Personally I could never take this blunt approach for a million different reasons, including, fear of losing face and the client. Us translators are rarely Beyoncé – rarely Irreplaceable – unless we have a solid specialisation in the client’s field.


A freelance translator is a business person, (yes, you are, whether you like it or not) an entrepreneur, if you like, and this job title implies being prepared to provide solutions to problems, and a commitment to helping our clients to move to the next step in their business, even if at times they cause inconvenience.

So how can we help our client conquer that urgent job?  Well, you wonderful entrepreneur, you’ll have to think quickly and logically!  Our objective should be to help the get the job done as well as possible, while remaining positive, professional and poised and not losing track of our other projects – a bit of a juggling act! But in some cases, you do not have to do it alone.

Here are some ideas to help you out and questions to reflect on:

  • Can you change your schedule to fit in the translation and still be able to provide high-quality work and meet your other deadlines? Are you able to work a few extra hours that evening to get it done without compromising the end product? If this answer is yes, then problem solved!
  • If the request is from a direct client, can you split the translation with a trusted colleague or colleagues who work(s) in the same area and language pair? Normally, the client will not mind; they are primarily interested in receiving a fit-for-purpose translation on time. (Note: with agencies this is a no-no, unless it has been agreed on with your PM).
  •  Can you refer your client to one of your trusted colleagues? Or can you project manage it for the client? Your colleague can translate it and you take care of the proofreading.


Let’s be honest: urgent requests can be terrifying if we deal with them in the panicky way detailed above, and can result in a freelancer cancelling or postponing other plans, and,  WARNING dealing with them on a day-in-day-out basis can lead to bitterness, lack of job satisfaction and burn out. But why do urgent translation requests occur? There are a number of reasons:

  • Clients (mine, at least) do not have telepathic powers. They do not have access to my weekly schedule, so they have no idea about when I am free. We can’t blame them if they need a translation when we happen to have crammed-schedules.
  • Lack of understanding about how long a translation takes. Perhaps a client is experiencing their first foray into translating their documentation, meaning that they do not have a realistic perception of turnarounds.
  • Disorganisation. No matter how organised we are from time to time (and more often) things slip our minds, or a document from a colleague arrives late, postponing everything that follows including the translation.



So how can we deliver the urgent document on time without feeling bitter, resentful and worked into the ground?

There are a couple of things we can do to soften the blow of an urgent job:

  • When you begin working with a client, send some type of “How I Work” documentation where you state how many words or pages you can handle per day and how much notice you need for a project, therefore, you set realistic expectations. Evidently, this is all idealistic, as often clients do not read or remember it. However, in the event that you’re sent one of these “translations for yesterday”, you can refer them to the document detailing  your words capacity per day on it. When agencies ask translators to fill out applications, they often ask for your capacity of words per day, so they are aware of their suppliers’ capabilities.
  • Add your rush fee for urgent projects. If you have to work late and put in extra hours, shift other work or burn the candle at both ends, then add a supplement for urgency. This may mean upping your rate from 0.08p per word to 0.10p per word, as an example. Or it could simply be tacking on an extra £10 per hour (again, as an example). Make sure the client agrees on this before hand. You could even send them a document to confirm this, have them sign it and send it back. I do not particularly like rush jobs, so extra remuneration for my efforts sweetens the deal for me. 

Back when I just started out I would have bent over backwards to please a client, but now I realise that there are more measured and logical approaches that culminate in happy translator and satisfied client.  Managing to strike this balance in rush job situations is tricky, but for me, going the extra mile and compromising is worth it, as long as it does not lead to resentment and burn-out. 

I’d guess that Marty McFly would simply hop in his DeLorean (made in Belfast, by the way) and have that translation ready for yesterday. But what do you do when you receive a rush job? I’d love to know how you tackle these situations. Please share your comments in the section below.






4 thoughts on “Post 10: But Marty, I need the translation… yesterday!

  1. Sharing real experience with issues, reasons and solutions about working with client. You gave nice reasons of client expectations, it will help to tackle such situations in our business as well.


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